Cruelty-free vs. Vegan – What’s the Difference?

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The terms “cruelty-free” and “vegan” have grown increasingly popular in just the last couple of years as consumer demand for animal cruelty-free cosmetics rises and the influx of new cosmetic products touting the “cruelty-free” and “vegan” labels from both indie and mainstream brands. But did you know there’s a difference between cruelty-free and vegan?

The two labels are often used interchangeably, by both companies and consumers, but they actually don’t mean the same thing.

It can be confusing trying to navigate through the cruelty-free and vegan beauty space but let me help break it down for you.

What’s the difference between cruelty-free vs vegan? Short Answer: “Cruelty-Free” generally implies no animal testing occurred whereas “Vegan” generally implies the products do not contain any animal-derived ingredients or by-products.

A product can be both, or one but not the other. This is a concept I’m going to dive in deeper with real-life examples down below.

Quick note, I’m using the term ‘generally’ here because this is generally how the beauty industry uses these two labels. If it was up to me and I got to make up the rules, I wouldn’t classify something as being vegan if it was tested on animals (cruelty-free). But unfortunately, I don’t make the rules so it’s important we learn and stay informed on how the industry and companies are using these labels today.

What’s the Difference: Cruelty-Free and Vegan?

Let’s start with some fun venn diagrams (remember those?)

Remember, the label “cruelty-free” means = this product and its ingredients were not tested on animals. And the label “vegan” means = this product does not contain animal products or ingredients.

We’ll start with the basics, when a product is labelled as both “cruelty-free and vegan”

Cosmetics claiming to be cruelty-free and vegan explained
Cosmetics claiming to be cruelty-free and vegan

Can something be called cruelty-free AND vegan

When a product claims to be both ‘cruelty-free and vegan’, it means it was not tested on animals and it does not contain animal products or ingredients.

Real life example: Pacifica Beauty has a cruelty-free and vegan lipstick. This means the lipstick from Pacifica was not tested on animals and does not contain any animal-derived ingredients or by-products.


Cosmetics claiming to be cruelty-free, but not vegan explained
Cosmetics claiming to be cruelty-free, but not vegan

Can something be cruelty-free but NOT vegan?

If a product claims to be ‘cruelty-free but not vegan’, it means the product was not tested on animals but it does contain some animal-derived ingredients or by-products.

Real life example: Milani Cosmetics has a cruelty-free lipstick but it is not vegan. This means the lipstick from Milani was not tested on animals, but it does contain some animal-derived ingredients or by-products like beeswax, carmine, or lanolin.


Now this leaves us with the last option,

Cosmetics that are vegan, but not cruelty-free explained
Cosmetics that are vegan, but not cruelty-free

Can something be vegan but NOT cruelty-free?

Here’s where it gets a little confusing and counter-intuitive. But bear with me.

Products that claim to be ‘vegan’ but may not be ‘cruelty-free’ means the product does not contain animal products or animal-derived ingredients but sadly, the products or its ingredients may have been tested on animals.

Real life example: Garnier claims their Ultimate Blends and new Fructis hair products are ‘vegan’, explaining how these products do not contain animal-derived ingredients or by-products. But Garnier is actually not a cruelty-free brand, as Garnier does test on animals when required by law¹.

Garnier claims their Ultimate Blends products are vegan, but Garnier is not cruelty-free
Garnier claims their Ultimate Blends products are vegan, but Garnier is not cruelty-free

Another real-life example: In 2017, L’Oreal’s EverPure Shampoo and Conditioners were spotted with a ‘100% Vegan’ stamp on the packaging. L’Oreal claims these products are ‘vegan’ in which they don’t contain animal-derived ingredients or by-products, but L’Oreal is definitely not a cruelty-free brand. L’Oreal does test on animals when required by law.²

L'Oreal claims their Ever hair products are 100% vegan, but L'Oreal is not cruelty-free.
L’Oreal claims their Ever hair products are 100% vegan, but L’Oreal is not cruelty-free.

Isn’t it Illegal for Brands to Lie About Being Cruelty-Free/Vegan?

How is it possible for L’Oreal and Garnier to tout claims of being “vegan” and “cruelty-free” when they’re not? and can’t they be sued for lying to us? I hear ya.

Sadly, there is no standard or legal definitions for the labels “cruelty-free” and “vegan”. This means companies can use these labels in whichever way they like without any consequences or liability. This is why it’s important we stay informed on what these labels mean and who may be misleading or deceiving us.

If you’re thinking, ain’t nobody got time for dat! then you’ll be happy to hear that there are currently 4 certifying organizations who all audits and accredits companies/products that are both cruelty-free and vegan. When you spot their logos on a product packaging, it means the issuing organization has verified that this product/company does not test on animals and do not use animal products or animal-derived in their products.

List of Cruelty-free and Vegan Certifications for Cosmetics
List of Cruelty-free and Vegan Certifications for Cosmetics

For further reading on what each of these logos and other “cruelty-free” and “vegan” logos and claims mean, check out this post here that explains it all!


¹ Garnier products are sold in mainland China where all imported cosmetics are required by law to be tested on animals. Garnier claims, “Garnier is in China with a few Ultimate Blends products only. And these products are part of the nonfunctional products category, which is no longer subject to animal testing since 2014.” Although China may not require pre-market animal testing on ordinary, domestically-produced cosmetics anymore, China may still conduct post-market animal testing on products that are sold in their country. Post-market testing is where Chinese officials will pull products off of store shelves and test them on animals, this is often times done without the company’s knowledge or consent. At this time, any cosmetic brand that is selling its products in-stores in mainland China cannot be considered cruelty-free because of the risks and possibility of post-market animal testing.

² Similar to Garnier, L’Oreal products are sold throughout mainland China where animal testing is required by law for all imported cosmetics. Although L’Oreal can make claims that they are not conducting these animal tests themselves, but they are consenting and paying the Chinese authorities to test on their behalf in order to sell within their country. L’Oreal is not considered cruelty-free by our standards.

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29 Comments
  • Kamilla
    January 20, 2020

    Can you be vegan but use cruelty-free ingredients?

“Make ethical choices in what we buy, do, and watch. In a consumer-driven society our individual choices, used collectively for the good of animals and nature, can change the world faster than laws.”― Marc Bekoff

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